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Time to get on board with Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority

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Daily passenger rail service might again become a reality in Helena. If such comes to pass, credit must go to the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority (BSPRA). Formed in 2020 for the purpose of reestablishing service along the southern tier, the BSPRA is Montana’s largest transportation district. The proposed southern passenger rail route will add to the existing Empire Builder service along the Hi-Line.

Abandoned since 1979, rail service through Glendive, Billings, Bozeman, Helena and Missoula will connect us to Chicago, Seattle and points beyond. Due to the social, economic and strategic importance of passenger rail, federal law requires freight haulers, such as Montana Rail Link and BNSF, to accommodate and give priority to passenger service on the rail lines. Very likely, Amtrak will operate the southern route through Montana.

State law (7-14-1601, MCA) allows counties to organize rail transportation districts. To date, 17 Montana counties have joined BSPRA. Each member county appoints one representative to participate in BSPRA activities, such as planning, feasibility studies, meetings with Amtrak officials, and discussions with federal funding agencies.

Lewis and Clark County has yet to get on board. Commissioner Andy Hunthausen has supported joining the passenger rail authority from the start – which is great. Commissioners Jim McCormick and Tom Rolfe have not yet signed on, despite unanimous public support expressed at five commission meetings. At these meetings, proponents provided detailed information on the workings of BSPRA and addressed commissioners’ questions about financing, liabilities and responsibilities.

The local social and economic benefits of today’s passenger rail service are significant. Trains are inherently safer and reduce highway fatalities. We’ll reduce pollution and lighten our carbon footprints by diverting vehicle miles to rail travel. Passenger rail optimizes efficient and economical travel, and translates into increased tax revenues. Democracy thrives when passenger rail connects Montana citizens with state government in Helena.

The bipartisan supporters of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority include Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, the Helena Chamber of Commerce, the Helena Tourism Alliance, and many others.

Lewis and Clark County needs to be ready to act quickly. Without a place at the BSPRA table, we might be left behind entirely. The federal infrastructure bill just signed into law provides more than $66 billion for enhanced rail service. The bill revises Amtrak’s mission to prioritize connectivity over profits, and upgrade food and beverage services on all Amtrak lines. Train travel keeps getting better!

While public support for reestablishing passenger rail service long the southern tier is virtually unanimous, Lewis and Clark County’s absence at the BSPRA planning table leaves us with no representation.

We trust that an informed citizenry will help convince our county commissioners to get on board NOW — a time when federal infrastructure funds are available and when local participation in regional planning efforts will prove crucial to defining the location of potential passenger rail service along Montana’s populous southern tier.

Sleeping Giant Citizens Council plans to hold a public educational forum on passenger rail for Lewis and Clark County. This forum will take place on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022, at 7 p.m. via Zoom. Keep your eye out for more details and the Zoom link. SGCC is a grassroots community organization that advocates for healthy and sustainable communities, and works to ensure citizens’ voices are heard in the decision-making process.

Meanwhile, if you support passenger rail for Lewis and Clark County, please thank Andy Hunthausen for his support. And, how about reaching out to Commissioners McCormick and Rolfe and inviting them to join the conversation happening at the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. It’s time to get on board!

This opinion was signed by Helena residents Patricia Bik, Kim Loftus, Wilbur Rehmann, Kerry Krebil, Janet Seymour and Kurt Olofson.

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